In the year 1999, Dan Chaon became my creative writing teacher. He was very young, and had just one book so far, a story collection called Fitting Ends, published by Northwestern University Press. I was basically a freckled zygote in red clogs who had no clue how to write a scene, much less a series of them. Dan showed me what was what, and he also said, Hey, read some Joy Williams, read some Lorrie Moore, do you know who Alice Munro is? Dan read everything, it seemed, and I was inspired to follow his example. In the years since, he has gone on to publish a second story collection, Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and two novels, including Await Your Reply, and then a third collection called Stay Awake. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can say, without reservation, that he is one of my favorite writers, living or dead, right up there with Edith Wharton and Margaret Atwood. His work is ambitious and weird. His characters are complicated and usually damaged, they make the wrong choices, they feel real. His prose is musical, and his imagery is at once startling and accurate. He writes stories that are compelling: stuff happens!
Ill Will is about a man named Dustin whose boyhood testimony sent his adopted brother, Rusty, to prison for killing their parents, aunt, and uncle. Now, 30 years later, DNA evidence has exonerated Rusty, and Dustin is forced to face the past he’s so diligently pushed out of his mind. But since this is a Dan Chaon book, there are other, equally striking and dark narrative threads. Dustin’s wife is dying. One of his sons is losing control of his life. One of his therapy clients is obsessed with a string of drowning deaths, and he draws Dustin into his amateur investigation. This is a novel about grief, about being unable to accept reality, and about the myriad ways we trick ourselves about our selves.
Dan was nice enough to answer some questions I had about the book via email. He said the first one felt like “a trap.” Read at your own peril.
The Millions: I was reading your book on Election Day and during the aftermath, too, when I have honestly never been more terrified for the future…and I wrote a post-apocalyptic novel for god’s sake! The night of November 8th, I actually willed myself away from the TV and the Internet and went to read in my bedroom, trying to calm myself. It worked, for a while, because your novel is wonderfully immersive — as a reader you want to know what exactly happened to Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle, and you’re so deeply inside the characters’ consciousnesses that it’s impossible to think of any world but theirs. Can you talk about creating an immersive experience on the page?
Dan Chaon: Edan, this is one of those lead-ins that feels like a trap. Like, you ask me: “What makes you so immersive?” And I’m like, “Uh…you tell me?” Cuz I don’t know. I know that there’s definitely some people who are disappointed and bored by the crap I write, and then there are people who like it, but I don’t have any control over it at all.
All I can say is that I personally fell into this story and that it managed to colonize my imagination for many years.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the serial killer novels that were popular then, and I’ve always been a fan of the thriller genre, so as a writer I wanted to try my hand at it. At the same time, Ill Will is a deeply personal project, and I found that having the framework of the genre allowed me to write about grief and loss and self-deception more directly and honestly than I would have if I’d been writing a more autobiographical book. For some reason, the two things hooked together, and I had a “fantasy world” that was powered by my real emotion, which I think is the exact vehicle that you need when you’re writing fiction.
In terms of an “immersive experience,” readers’ mileage may vary. I was trying to find a balance between writing a straight-up Silence of the Lambs style procedural, and something more personal and idiosyncratic. I hope that there is enough here to satisfy readers of both genres.
TM: I wonder if you feel if your writing has changed, or will change, in this Trump era. Do you have a different job, as a writer of fictive worlds, than you did before he took power?
DC: This is such a hard question to answer. I’m writing this on Feb. 8, 2017, and it’s only a few weeks into Trump’s presidency, so I have no idea where we’ll be when this interview is published. I have never experienced this degree of destabilization before — I don’t have any idea what shape the world will be in when my book comes out next month. We might be at war. There might be riots. I’m guessing, though, that everything won’t be fine. Hi, people of the future! From Dan, in February 2017! YOLO!
But to answer your question from my current innocent position, I don’t know. I think we create fiction from the sewage that we are swimming in, and that whatever the world feels like at the moment will always infuse the fiction that we’re writing, like a tea bag in hot water.
I wouldn’t have anticipated that the concerns of this book—self-deception, fake news, manipulation, denial—would be so pertinent when the book came out. There may be a slight case of prescience in it, but I wouldn’t call it luck.
TM: This world you immerse your readers in is also a bleak one: four people were brutally killed decades earlier; Dustin’s wife is dying of cancer; Dustin’s son Aaron is addicted to heroin and floating through his grief; Cleveland is in post-industrial rot. But it’s also funny. I laughed out loud quite a few times, especially during Aaron’s millennial narration. Stuff like: “I never understood why people from the 1980s thought there’d be flying cars. It just seemed really dangerous and impractical to me, but they all talked about it, so it must have been a thing. Meanwhile, my dream for the future was that it wouldn’t involve mass extinction and large-scale water shortages and cannibalism.” Your work has always had this strain of twisted amusement, but it feels amped up here. Was this deliberate?
DC: I’m always cautious about the word “deliberate,” because so much of the tone of a piece feels outside of my conscious control. I actually found myself kind of unnerved that, for some reason, large stretches of the bleak and horrible landscape of Ill Will were hilarious to me. Maybe some degree of levity was necessary for me, as a writer, in order to get through some of the darkest parts of the book. Looking back, I can see that the Aaron and Rusty sections of the book were definitely inspired by the rhythms of stand-up comics, and the mordant tone of certain writers I find funny — like George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte — was also an influence.
TM: I’ve never read such a poignant and visceral depiction of grief before — you show how it dislocates and obliterates us, and you often do that formally, by stopping a sentence midway, for instance, or including many spaces between sentences. A couple of times, you place scenes in columns, so that they appear side-by-side, occurring separately but simultaneously. This formal play surprised and exhilarated me, and it was effective: it truly felt like lived experience to me, and how our brains process trauma. Did you feel like the novel, as it’s traditionally written, simply couldn’t express what you needed to express? Where in the writing did this experimentation occur, and can you talk about the various approaches and why you took these leaps?
DC: I have a classroom exercise for my creative writing students called the “Box Exercise.” I have students create a table with three columns and two rows, exactly the size of an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. The assignment is that each of the six boxes contains a scene of a story. I wanted to force them to be concise, and to think about the way scenes work together like building blocks. It’s useful for the students to be able to see all the scenes together at once.
I was inspired to create the exercise by a couple of things. Firstly, I spent a little time working in a writer’s room for a (failed) TV show, and the process of “breaking story” was fascinating to me, the way we put each individual scene on an index card and pinned it to a bulletin board, so that the story was represented not just in words, but graphically, visually. I was also inspired by a chapter of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” which is rendered as a powerpoint presentation.
In any case, I loved the results I got from the students when they did this exercise. By forcing them to work in these very tight, elliptical spaces, the exercise seemed to give them a creative jolt, and I was so taken with it that I started using the exercise myself, during free-writes. Eventually, it became so deeply embedded into the texture of the book that I kept the weird formatting.
My editor was a little doubtful about it at first — and it was an incredible pain in the ass during the typesetting process — but I’m really happy that we were able to retain it, because I do think it conveys something that couldn’t be expressed in a different way.
TM: There were so many memorable names in the novel, like Dustin’s cousin named Waverna, who is called Wave when she’s younger, and Dustin’s son’s friend, nicknamed Rabbit, and my favorite: Xzavious Reinbolt, who also goes by…Amy. These names were endlessly delightful to me, and also realistic (I mean, my own name is crazy, right?) Can you talk about naming these characters and how they contribute to the overall tone of the book?
DC: I steal names from my students, as you know — there is a character named Eden in one of the stories in my collection Stay Awake, for example. I also steal from friends and acquaintances, and from my children’s friends, and from random websites. Dusty and Rusty were two kids I knew in grade school, and Rabbit owned a bar that my parents liked to go to. The last name Tillman was taken from the musician Joshua Tillman, who sings under the name Father John Misty. I stumbled across the name Xzavious Reinbolt when I was doing a Google image search for arrest mugshots.
Names are weirdly important to me. I want them to be realistic in a way — to evoke a certain social class and region and time period and mood — but I also need them to have a music to them, to evoke something that has the quality of a dream or a fable, hopefully without being too cartoonish or distracting.
I don’t know if it’s superstition or magic or what, but for me a name somehow breathes life into a puppet, gives shape to an abstraction. The characters often refuse to perform unless they have been properly christened.
TM: You were raised in Nebraska and live in Cleveland now, and these are the landscapes in your work. I’m pretty sure I’m one of those latte-drinking, kale-eating coastal elites, and while reading your novel I was reminded that there aren’t that many contemporary literary novels set in the places you write about. Or I’m not reading them. There’s also a lot of class stuff. There’s a great moment when Dustin recalls his wife saying that he wasn’t merely unlucky, as he believes, just raised poor — she says that bad stuff happens to poor people. What’s the role of place in your fiction? And how present is class for you, as you’re thinking about a character and their sense of themselves in the world?
DC: I like kale too, Edan! Especially baby kale, in a smoothie with mango and bananas! But it tastes different in Cleveland than it does in San Francisco.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that social class is actually my big subject. It’s often a dirty word in political discussions, and easy to dismiss when compared to its companion, race. Generally, race is something that can’t be escaped or hidden; class, on the other hand, is a marker that’s far more nebulous, and part of the American delusion, for both the left and the right, is that it can be left behind, slipped out of like a suit of clothes.
This is true to some extent, I think. I’m a good example. I was raised in a working class family, and many of my relatives existed below the poverty line — rural poor, trailer park poor. My mother’s parents lived in a house without an indoor toilet. They had an outhouse.
But I am very distant from that world now. I went to college at Northwestern, and the majority of my adult life has been spent in one form or another of middle-class or upper-middle-class life. I’m a college professor, and I earn a good living from my writing as well. I’m a plump, privileged white liberal, and I don’t think you’d be able to tell that I’ve ever been any different.
But I feel different. I feel like an imposter a lot of the time.
Class means many different things beyond income. It’s an attitude, too: there are people who are “classy,” there’s a way of moving through the world with confidence, an unknowing entitlement. There are people who come from “good families,” whatever their finances say. Class is an invisible tattoo that marks your spirit, and I thought it would eventually go away, but now that I’m in my 50s I’m starting to think it won’t.
Dustin’s right: it’s about luck. People who are born comfortable are lucky, but they don’t know it. I have lived among them for more than half my life, and my observation is that there is always a part of them that feels like they deserved it. They don’t even realize how deeply the idea of “meritocracy” is built into their worldview. Even if they would never admit it, they secretly feel that they earned their advantages somehow: poor people were not as smart, not as sensible, not as well-bred. If they just tried a little harder.
Well. I did try harder. I threw away everyone I grew up with, gladly. I left for college and never went back, and I pretended to be my own creation, no nature or nurture either, just a self-invented person. See? I’m just like you, readers of The Millions. My life is so different from some of my cousins’ lives that we may as well live in different universes, but I achieved that by chopping off big parts of myself.
I think those severed limbs are the ghosts that haunt my writing. They come in the form of Rusty, the enraged, dangerous foster kid who is smarter than you, but who was doomed the minute he got dumped out of the womb; they come in the form of Aaron, who has everything he needs for a good, happy life, but runs toward the arms of disaster as if it’s his only true love. They are parts of myself that I have murdered, but they won’t stay buried. They come in the form of Dustin, a man so split from his past life that he can’t even remember it. Whole lives are dedicated to not thinking about something.
TM: I usually ask writers in these Millions interviews what the last great book they read was, but since I know you consume not just books passionately, but also music, television, and movies, can you share with us what art and pop culture, of any kind, you’ve been enjoying lately?
I loved the movie Moonlight, and am looking forward to seeing Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele.
I am still faithful to the television show The Walking Dead, even though it is often disappointing. I also watch Vikings and the Netflix show Sens8, and yes, Westworld.
My favorite podcast of last year was called “In the Dark,” produced by APM Reports.
As far as video games go, I played Dark Souls III for a while in 2016, but now I am back on Skyrim again.
In my early and mid teens, I was a big reader of genre fiction: murder mysteries and thrillers, sci-fi and horror. Stephen King was a favorite, of course, and so was a novel by Frank de Felitta called Audrey Rose, about an eleven-year-old girl who turns out to be the reincarnation of girl who died in a gruesome car fire. The idea of being haunted from within, of being literally inhabited by the past, was deliciously frightening.
Then, at a new school, I came under the influence of teachers who lobbed some biggies at us: Dostoyevsky, Proust, Mann. Crime and Punishment showed me that the movements of a mind can be as suspenseful as migrating spirits and telekinetic powers, while Proust’s intricate explorations of time revealed less supernatural ways in which the past penetrates the present. Reading these masters, I began to feel, physically, the difference between sentences that merely move the plot along and sentences that are a type of music and a conduit for the exploration of human character. I became a lit snob and didn’t look back. There were only so many years to hit all the high points between Gilgamesh and the latest Alice Munro! Even when I was drawn to the premise or plot of the latest blockbuster, I found I lost interest by page 20. If a book doesn’t hold me sentence by sentence, it doesn’t hold me at all.
Dan Chaon is a writer for those of us who thought we’d left genre behind. Sure, contemporary writers such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Colson Whitehead import genre conventions into their literary fiction, but my guess is that their most avid readers tend to be those who never lost their taste for the detective story, the thriller, or the futuristic drama, stories in which character generally takes a back seat to magic and adventure. You may read Chabon or Lethem for their powers of invention and their remarkable sentences, but you don’t read them for richly nuanced characterization.
In Chaon’s work, character, and character’s corollary, relationship, are primary — and therefore so are the emotions of longing, grief, guilt, and rage. Chaon has long been creating completely realistic scenarios that nevertheless transmit all of the distressing uncanniness of the best supernatural tales. A lover of Austen, Eliot, and James may never warm to Lethem and Co., but is likely enough to fall for Dan Chaon.
Chaon published his first short story collection in 1995, but it was his second, Among the Missing, that put him on the map. It featured bizarre premises, such as a woman who purchases an inflatable doll to replace her dead husband, or a boy who believes that his next-door neighbor is literally himself, grown up. The standout stories created phenomenally convincing worlds in which Chaon’s typically isolated and self-distrusting characters are trapped by an ambivalence and epistemological uncertainty so strong as to become a crippling dread. In “I Demand to Know Where You’re Taking Me,” a woman is tormented by the pet parrot of her brother-in-law, who has been imprisoned for a series of rapes he says he didn’t commit (but the woman suspects he did). The parrot screams phrases like “Smell my feet!” and “Stupid cunt!” channeling the brother-in-law’s threatening presence into her previously safe-feeling home. In “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By,” a married man, on a visit to his childhood home, is suffocated by the saccharine attentions of the Ormsons, the parents of a boyhood friend who went missing when they were fourteen years old. Mr. and Mrs. Ormson treat the narrator like their substitute son, but their desperate affection feels vampiric. The horrors here are the horrors of ambiguity and unstable identity, of circumstances that feel supernatural even though they are always explainable in rational terms.
The pleasures and the impact continue with Chaon’s new collection, Stay Awake, following two well-received novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. While Stay Awake does not abandon Chaon’s signature themes of identity and isolation, disappearance and memory, it flirts even more openly with the line between the supernatural and the rationalistic – and indeed two of the stories, “The Bees” and “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands,” have overtly supernatural elements. The situations have grown even more extreme: a couple has a two-headed baby, a woman drowns several of her children, a father comes into his young daughters’ bedroom intending to kill them in their sleep. Two men in two completely different stories fall off of ladders, severing a finger – a coincidence that I must admit I found distracting. Characters desperately want to or do escape their homes, their towns, the marriages they’ve made; they think they’re free of the past until memory or something even more sinister catches up with them. One character watches Soylent Green on late-night TV, and an actor in that horror movie is described as “running through the future, screaming.” The phrase could easily be an alternate title for this book.
Stay Awake also is more preoccupied than Chaon’s earlier collection with the sending and receiving of messages – from departed family members or loved ones, from the universe itself. Chaon has spoken publicly about his wife’s premature death from cancer in 2008, and it’s impossible not to see in these stories a yearning for communication between those who disappear and those who remain. Chaon nicely leaves open the question of whether it’s scarier to imagine that the universe is trying to send us certain messages, or is not.
While there isn’t a single clunker in the entire collection, the standout, for my money, is “Shepherdess,” which is also, I must say, the one most in the Among the Missing vein. No truly gruesome situations here — just a drunken woman who falls rather comically out of a tree — and no supernatural elements. “Shepherdess” is simply about a youngish man, his mother who has just died, and a girlfriend whom he suspects is about to dump him: the old story of human bafflement and longing. Waiting in the hospital while his possibly-ex-girlfriend is getting treated after her fall, the story’s narrator speaks for nearly all of the significant characters in Stay Awake when he says: “I am not really sure how I am supposed to behave in this situation.”
The last story, “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” shows Chaon taking major risks with point of view and style, and bringing it off wonderfully. The narrator is dead, albeit only in an alternative universe, and the result is really freaking spooky. In the margin of my copy I scribbled, “I’m sorry I read this at night.” (Beside another story, I wrote: “No!! This is horrible — and very effective.”)
Chaon’s style is tone-perfect but hard to quote; there are no lyrical flights or riffs of obvious brilliance. It mixes brisk, sometimes even brutal, colloquialism with unobtrusively elevated language, and its power is contextual and cumulative. Easiest to cite are the more comic moments, as in the terrific opening to “Shepherdess”:
This girl I’ve been seeing falls out of a tree one June evening. She’s a little drunk — I bought a couple of bottles of hopefully decent Chardonnay from Trader Joe’s on my way over to her house — and now she’s a little drunk and a little belligerent. There is something about me that she doesn’t like, and we’ve been arguing obliquely all evening.
Can people ever change? Are our identities fixed in all the worst ways and fluid in all the worst ways, too? Chaon says: Unclear, and Yes and Yes. The take-away? Be Afraid. The truth is I didn’t just stop reading books like Audrey Rose so long ago because my taste improved. It was also because, the older I got, the more they scared the hell out of me. Scared me beyond pleasure and into real distress. Maybe, upon leaving the cocoon of family and childhood, I discovered that reality was more than enough to be frightened of. Dan Chaon knows that, too, and evokes just enough of the uncanny to bring me back to those old innocent genre thrills, while offering the lit-snob side of me the realism-based subtleties of language and character that I need like bread and water.
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”
A New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”
I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.
With so many precocious children and their quirks to keep track of, here is a guide to some of the genre’s recent standouts:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oskar Schell, 9, “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector.” Having found a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks, Oskar sets out to find the lock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Blue van Meer, 16, who never met a simile, metaphor, parenthetical quip, reference, citation, or Strategic Capitalization she didn’t like. Her mother died in a car accident; Dad is a brilliant, nomadic, and pompous professor.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Christopher Boone, 15, autistic and mathematically gifted. A fan of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, and uncovers the truth about his mother’s death.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love: Alma Singer, 14, who keeps a notebook called “How to Survive in the Wild” inspired by her adventurous father, who died of cancer. She is trying to find the author of an old novel that her mother is translating.
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: T.S. Spivet, 12, a cartography genius traveling by train, alone, from a Montana ranch to Washington, DC, to accept an award at the Smithsonian.
In each of these books, told in first-person, voice is central. Reviewers often remark that the protagonists sound nothing like a “real” child or teenager. But aside from Curious Incident, which is meant to be a feat of channeling—this is how the world looks through the eyes and brain of an autistic boy—reality and fidelity are not of primary concern. Lacking much real-world and life experience, the characters filter their lives through film noir, cowboy movies, detective stories, Jewish mysticism, novels and history.
As T.S. says before beginning his train journey, “I guess I was a sucker for historical myth just like Father. But whereas his Spiral of Nostalgic Unfulfillment was directed at the cinematic West of the trail drive, one need only whisper the phrase ‘bustling railroad town’ to raise my blood pressure a notch.” Alma’s hero is the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII. Blue describes Hannah Schneider, the film teacher whose mysterious death fuels the book’s plot, as straight out of a black and white classic:
She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light… Within her carriage… was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speak of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding).
These influences from previous eras create an internal logic for each book. The trick is similar to that of the movie Brick, which transported the conventions of ‘30s detective fiction to a Southern California high school. Would a high schooler say “No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one”? Of course not. But as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote of the film, “it’s an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.”
For his Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection, Marc Jacobs designed shoes that had squat heels jutting out backwards, horizontally, from the ball of the foot. I love shoes as much as I love reading, and found this pair quite special: Jacobs had managed to rearrange conventional elements into something whimsical, and expand the idea of what a shoe can be.
Most books fit within a remarkably limited format, but formal inventiveness is a salient trait of these novels. Like children, they don’t always follow the rules. The books include maps and diagrams in the margins; pages in color and marked up with a red correction pen; illustrations and photos; blank pages; pages with type so dense they’re unreadable; foot notes and citations; chapters named for classic books or numbered with increasing prime numbers; and codas of a mathematical proof (Curious Incident), a Final Exam (Special Topics), and a flip book (Extremely Loud). According to critics like B.R. Myers, whose article “A Bag of Tired Tricks” appeared in The Atlantic upon the publication of Extremely Loud, my enjoyment of such “spurious playfulness” makes me “easily amused.”
But I don’t see these flourishes as gratuitous examples of “look at me! I’m different and clever!” T.S. makes sense of the world through mapping, and as he deals with the recent death of his younger brother “during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about,” the tragedy’s repercussions are fittingly explored in the margins. Christopher’s brain functions in an emotionally detached, logical/mathematical/schematic way that necessitates diagrams. I found Extremely Loud’s backwards-flipbook, in which photos show a leaping body rising upwards alongside one of the twin towers, a moving visualization of Oskar’s biggest wish. Plus, it’s simply fun to turn the page and find a picture. It’s a fitting throwback to children’s books, as well as a nod to the hyperlinked/sidebar-ed/multimedia texts we read, without fuss, online.
The playfulness extends to language. More than any book I can remember, Special Topics delights in inventive, extended description. Listen to Blue riff on a central character:
He was a Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). Goodnight Moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance… Goodnight Moons could be male or female and were universally adored. Even teachers worshipped them. They looked to Goodnight Moons whenever they asked a question and even though they answered with a drowsy, wholly incorrect answer, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, wonderful.’
None of the precocious narrators are Goodnight Moons. In fact, let’s call them The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), though with less class warfare. They do not fit easily into the world. Aside from Alma’s Russian immigrant pen pal, none of them has a true friend his or her own age; professors, teachers, parents, grandparents and strangers to whom they write letters provide a tenuous social life. They are unpopular at school, lonely, awkward, weird.
I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off—a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)
The books also nimbly capture how, when brains trump social skills, you end up feeling both older and younger than everyone around you. Alma and Blue are clueless about boys and have disastrous first kisses, but are ambitious enough to unravel complicated mysteries. And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
Because for all their cuteness, the novels are really about surviving death and loss. Several of the characters assemble literal survival kits, that include items like a telescope, compasses, drafting paper, duct tape, a stuffed animal, a snakebite kit, iodine pills, Swiss Army knives, a copy of Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and Juicy Juice boxes. But what good is a compass or stuffed animal—where can you go, and what second-rate comfort will you find?—when you are a child whose parent or sibling has died?
As a culture, we have an odd relationship with high-achieving youths. The media scrambles to cover four-year-old abstract artists, 12-year-old fashion bloggers, 13-year-olds who climb Mt. Everest—but we regard the little prodigies with a mix of admiration, disbelief, mistrust and even hostility. (Witness the backlash against some of the precociously talented young novelists themselves, like accusations that Pessl only got a book deal because she’s pretty, and the phenomenon of “Schadenfoer“; note the glee people are taking in mocking Krauss’ recent over-the-top blurb.)
The other day, I overheard a commercial advertising a contest that would reward “the fastest, most accurate texter.” Then I learned that Jersey Shore’s The Situation had inked a book deal.
In an age of shortening attention spans and the glorification of stupidity, I find it comforting and exciting to spend time with young characters for whom books, maps, notebooks, letters, research, drawings, imagined inventions and classic films are central and essential. Precocious narrators, and the ambitious novelists who create them, give me hope that our culture can keep evolving without sliding into Idiocracy, and stand as proof of the power of intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and even “gee-whiz wonderment.”
In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, T.S. coins the term “Stenpock,” after his science teacher, Mr. Stenpock. A Stenpock is someone “who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.” Precocious narrators are anti-Stenpocks, and I’m a sucker for them.
[Image credit: Inna]
Dan Chaon’s most recent novel, Await Your Reply, is a masterful tale of identity and how it’s made, stolen, and remade. The book, with its three interlocking stories, and locales as disparate as Las Vegas, Nebraska, and the Arctic, is intensely readable, but as Janet Maslin of The New York Times points out, “…the real pleasure in reading Mr. Chaon is less in finding out where he’s headed than in savoring what he accomplishes along the way.” Chaon is also the author of the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and two short story collections, Fitting Ends, and Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award. He was my creative writing teacher at Oberlin College, where he is the Irvin E. Houck Associate Professor of the Humanities.
The Millions: What really struck me about this book was how realistic and specific your characters felt, even as some of them dissolved and became nothing more than a name, a wardrobe, a series of gestures and ways of speaking. At the same time, though, other characters remained real—and, this isn’t exactly the right word—pure. How did you go about creating the different characters for this novel? How important was it that they all be believable, and what does that mean for this kind of book?
Dan Chaon: The book was written in little pieces, almost like a series of short-short stories in the beginning. When I started, I didn’t know anything but little glimmers—scenes—that eventually began to fit together. In general I don’t plan out my characters in advance. Mostly, I begin with images, moments—a severed hand in an ice bucket, a lighthouse on the prairie, a guy driving down the Dempster Highway toward the Arctic Ocean. Once I had the moment in my head, I began to circle out and try to understand the people who were involved. So I suspect that my experience of writing the book, and the discoveries that I made as I went along, are not so different from the readers’ experience. The characters all started out as “real” to me—I was getting to know them as I went along, the same way you get to know friends over time–and I was as shocked as anyone when some of them turned out to be fakes. You say that some of the characters “remained real—and this isn’t exactly the right word—pure,” –but I actually think this is exactly the right coinage. Pure. I really like that word. That’s one of the issues that I was thinking of when I was writing. What is a “real” self? What is a “pure” representation of character? Is it just a consistent set of behaviors? Is there something truly essential that makes you, you? I don’t think I came up with an answer, but it was fun to think about.
TM: In your acknowledgments, you write that Await Your Reply pays homage to various writers you’ve loved, from Ray Bradbury to Shirley Jackson to Peter Straub, among others. What was the extent of your “gestures and winks” toward their work? Is this your own playful, literary version of identity theft?
DC: One of my early jobs when I was first out of undergrad was as a DJ. This was back in the late eighties, when the concepts of the “mash-up” and sampling were still in their infancy. But there was something about that concept that I really, really liked—the way the songs seemed to be having a conversation with one another, and by being combined actually transformed into something new. I’d like to think that there’s some of that going on here, too. Many of the “samples” are tucked into the imagery, like Easter eggs: for example, readers of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will recognize those birds that are circling Miles in the Arctic, with their cry of “tekeli-li!”; people who have seen Takashi Miike’s movie, The Audition, will recognize that horrific piano wire in Chapter 2; people who have read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House will notice echoes of poor Eleanor Vance’s final thoughts… and—well, let’s just say that there are a few dozen of these throughout the book, which some people might enjoy finding themselves. But my intent wasn’t merely to create a bunch of cute in-jokes, either. To a larger extent, I was using these little touchstones to draw forth a particular texture and mood. For me, it was almost an invocation, a séance. That Ouija Board is in Jay’s house for a reason!
As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read. Occasionally, an interviewer will ask: “Who are you writing for? Who is your audience?” And in many ways the answer is that I’m writing for those authors I’ve loved, and the books I’ve loved. If you’re an avid reader, and a book gets under your skin, it can affect you as intensely as a real human relationship, it lingers with you for your whole life, and there is always this desire to re-experience that amazing sense of connection you get from “your books.” I understand completely why people want to write fan fiction. To me, I guess, all fiction is fan fiction at a certain level, just as it always has an element of identity theft.
TM: Do you see your novel as a kind of Nabokovian puzzle, to be unwrapped and unlocked by discerning readers of the future? How far does the rabbit hole go?
DC: As much as I’m flattered by the term “Nabokovian,” I’m not sure that I’m capable of that level of gamesmanship. I’m sure that a literary critic could footnote the hell out of the book, but I suspect that a great number of the references she’d find here would be unintentional, or accidental, or drawn unconsciously from the cultural ether. A couple of years ago, I wrote the Afterward for the Signet Classic edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one of the things that struck me, re-reading that novel for the first time in many years, was how much of my recollection of the book was simply wrong. Major scenes that I remembered vividly simply weren’t there in the text. In fact, as it turned out, my memory of Dr. Jekyll had been so radically infected by the enormous number of other representations that were floating around in the culture—movies and comics and parodies and so forth—that it was difficult to read the “real” version without filling in aspects from the version I’d imagined, the version that I’d pieced together out of a vast array of cultural detritus. None of which had existed when the actual book was written. I hope that something similar may happen to readers of Await Your Reply, and that in this way the “rabbit hole” goes on into Fibonacci-like infinity. I set out to draw on some of the archetypal plots that I had always found most compelling—the Bluebeard story, the evil twin story, the mythology of shapeshifters, legends of ghosts and haunted places and fruitless quests into the wastelands—all of which, of course, were viral memes for centuries before the internet existed. I suspect that the reader will be reminded of a whole set of references and touchstones as they read—but that their footnotes would be idiosyncratic, a kind of private, Kinbote-like appendix for each individual reader.
TM: This novel is ingeniously structured, with three narratives that eventually overlap and lock together. Part of the fun of reading it is figuring that puzzle out. How did you put together this little narrative machine? None of it feels accidental—but can that be?
DC: When I started out, I didn’t have any idea how the three threads were connected. I just knew that they were—somehow. The first hundred pages of the book took me about two years to write. I revised and revised, and fiddled around with the personalities of the characters, and added and deleted subplots and minor characters—basically trying to frame out the farmland that I was going to be working with, cutting brush and taking rocks out of the soil and so forth. The second hundred pages took about nine months. This was when I began to use cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, leaving each thread with an unanswered question that I had to figure out, and that pushed things forward for me more quickly. At this point, I was showing the book chapter by chapter to my editor, Anika Streitfeld, and to my wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz. They would each give me a little feedback and I’d float various plot concepts—which Anika or Sheila or both of them would frequently, kindly, shoot down, or talk me through. The last hundred pages was written in a little less than two months, but it really wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly had everything figured out. The last bit of plot clicked into place the way a difficult math problem sometimes does. Bing! Suddenly it seems so obvious! And I remember e-mailing Anika at about four in the morning. “Does this sound crazy???” I had to go back and do some adjustment and revision—but it was actually quite surprising to me to discover how much of the plot was already there, embedded in the narrative without my noticing. It didn’t actually require a lot of rewriting. My wife Sheila died of cancer not long after I’d finished the final revisions, and it’s both difficult and comforting now to look at this book, since there is so much of her in it, chapter by chapter: her advice and thoughts and spirit. She wrote in pencil on the last page of the last chapter: “You did it, honey!” But really we did it together.
TM: As Await Your Reply progresses, it hearkens more and more to an old-fashioned thriller or horror tale, with its level of suspense, its secrets and plot revelations, and its pervading sense of unease. This, for me, felt simultaneously like a departure and continuation from your earlier work, if that makes any sense. What say you?
DC: I’ve been deeply influenced by two strains of North American fiction: first, by the realistic regionalism of writers like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Sherwood Anderson, and so forth; and secondly, by writers of dark fantasy like Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury, etc. I’ve tended to be categorized more with the former group, the regional realists, but I think that you could make a good case to classify my work with the latter as well. My short story collection, Among the Missing, was strongly influenced by the tradition of ghostly and supernatural tales, and my first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was drawing very heavily from tales of psychological suspense and Kafkaesque otherworldliness—not intended to be straightforward melodrama, though I think it was often taken as such. I learned a lot about novel-writing from You Remind Me of Me—the effects that I wanted, and those that I didn’t—and I deliberately wanted to go back to the multiple narrative, round-robin style of storytelling, and see if I could build on what I had figured out. Around the time I was finishing You Remind Me of Me, I also happened to write a story for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. Chabon’s project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements, and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like the story I wrote, “The Bees,” was a breakthrough for me, and I learned a lot from writers like Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Arthur Phillips, Kevin Brockmeier—and many others—who were doing interesting work with genre-bending. I have to say, though, that perhaps the biggest cultural influences on the novel were my teenaged sons, Philip and Paul, and the books and movies and TV shows that they loved and which permeated our household—Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy of books, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the TV show “Lost,” the films Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all the various good, smart stuff which one or both of my kids were obsessed with…
TM: In a 2004 interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, you remarked: “I’ve written stories since I was a little kid. To me there’s something compelling about being a different person for a little while and trying out a different kind of life.” I couldn’t help but read Await Your Reply as partly a meditation on fiction writing and reading. In the book, when Ryan muses that identities are like shells that “you stepped into and that began to solidify over time… They began to take on a life of their own, developed substance,” I thought of my own creative process of inhabiting characters. And Ryan’s sadness after retiring an identity articulated so well that peculiar grief of finishing a manuscript, or a beloved book. Were these nods to the writing and reading life intentional? Furthermore, do you think fiction writing is somewhat criminal—is it a weird invasion of privacy, this theft and composite of various real lives? Do readers understand best the lure of identity theft, the chance to live another’s life for a while? And, when you spend a large part of your time making up stories and reading made up stories, where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional?
DC: Gee, Edan. You articulate things so well here that I barely have to answer! Yes to all of these. I think that as a teacher of creative writing, it’s inevitable that you think a lot about the creative process, and that you spend a lot of time trying to articulate how it works and why it is important, especially in a world that students face in which this kind of thinking isn’t taken seriously, when it’s seen as frivolous—or worse. One of the things that I talk about frequently with my students is the act of empathy—the act of trying to imagine yourself in the position of someone else—and the way this can be scary, and transgressive, and even dangerous. One of my assignments in my fiction class is to ask students to write from the point of view of someone radically different from themselves—to speak in the voice of a different gender or ethnicity or class, to try to think as far outside themselves as they can go, to try to inhabit that person—and for many of my students this feels perilous, even morally problematic.
I remember one time we had a discussion in class about a sensational news story. An insane woman had kidnapped a pregnant mother, and had killed the mother and performed a c-section and claimed the baby as her own. A truly horrifying tale. And we had been talking about it in class, and I asked: which character would you choose if you were writing a story? The pregnant mother or the insane woman who took the baby? At that point, a young woman spoke up, a sophomore. “My God!” she said. “The ghost of that dead woman is probably spitting on us as we sit here talking about this!” I think that was you, Edan, who was so appalled. I remember that it gave me pause: At what point does imagining, does the attempt to inhabit, become wrong? At what point does it become morally repugnant? I still think: never. But I understand that it’s fraught, that it’s compromised, that it’s suspect. That it’s an invasion that borders on—or crosses over into—the criminal. During the writing of this book, I followed the exploits of a number of trolls who used invented personas to invade and then (often hilariously) disrupt various solemn internet message boards. I read about a depressed teen who was goaded into suicide by a cruel classmate’s mother who was pretending to be the poor girl’s “boyfriend” on MySpace. I myself set up a dummy email address and briefly tried out various fake personas to see what would happen.
Where does real life begin and end? What makes some human beings real, and some fictional? I don’t know the answer. For better or worse, the answers to these questions seem to be changing all the time, and maybe there is no true answer.
TM: There’s an incredibly eerie and memorable second-person chapter at the end of Part One, where the narrator describes “your” identity being stolen, which, “Isn’t necessarily you, of course…you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling yourself.” This chapter has the great power of planting paranoia in the reader’s mind, and forces her to question her own identity and notions of self. As I kept reading, though, I found myself feeling paranoid about everything in the book—pretty soon I couldn’t trust anyone! Um, Dan? How in the hell did you do this?
DC: This chapter emerged from a late night free-write, which wasn’t originally intended to be anything but a journal entry. I was at a point when I needed to try to explain to myself what the book was about, and this was one of the few chapters (the final chapter, Chapter 26, is the other) which came out in one draft, with very little revision. It felt like an inner voice that was speaking to me—a very eerie feeling for me as well.
TM: About the aforementioned chapter: why the second person? It’s interesting, because while it’s about identity theft, it’s not taking away my identity, but, rather, giving me a different one. In the text, I’m pulling off a snowy interstate—“And you wipe off the snow in your hair”—when in fact this reader lives in Los Angeles! What went into this particular narrative choice?
DC: The narrative movement of this chapter was weird for me. Originally, the narrator felt like me, Dan Chaon, the author—but then it moved into a more chilly and abstract omniscience, as if a little spark of myself had disconnected and was free-floating through the world, out-of-the-body travel, and then I found myself hovering over a stranger and entering into his consciousness. Becoming part of the scene, and taking on his life story and personality. I realize now that I was trying to model the process of transference—to describe in shorthand the way imaginative empathy works. “You” are not in Los Angeles any longer. You have become that melancholy middle-aged guy pumping gas in upstate New York.
There is a poem by my friend Liz Rosenberg called “The Accident,” which I think about a lot. In the poem, a woman who is driving down the interstate observes the death of a motorcyclist from a distance, and there is an incredibly beautiful use of second person that I have always admired. “You are still you, but changing fast,” says the narrator of Liz Rosenberg’s poem, and she is both talking to the dying motorcycle guy and to herself.
TM: Has teaching at Oberlin influenced you as a writer? How do you manage to give students a sense of artistic freedom, while also offering them straightforward advice on technique and form?
DC: I love teaching, and I particularly like that moment when a student begins to discover the subject matter and voice that makes them unique. That’s a real high for me and it’s what keeps me coming back, semester after semester. It’s such a pleasure to be around people who care passionately about books and writing and who have singular perspectives about the world, which is what I find almost across the board with Oberlin students. I do find that I learn a lot from students, too. The thing about teaching fiction is that there isn’t one answer to a problem—there’s no rulebook or easy fix. I learn a lot about my own process from helping students find solutions to the various issues that emerge when you’re working through a draft. Not to get all new-agey, but there’s a lot of good energy that comes out of it.
TM: Have you noticed any popular themes or concepts in this current era of undergraduate writers?
DC: I notice a lot more post-apocalyptic scenarios these days, and I’m aware that as a generation this new group is pretty scared and pessimistic about the future they’re being left with. In general, there’s less interest in straightforward realism than there used to be. It remains very difficult to get anyone under 21 interested in Alice Munro or William Trevor, but I guess that’s as it should be. It’s hard, at my students’ age, to be sympathetic with the very middle-aged concerns of those two greats. All in good time, right?
TM: Because this is a book site, and because I know for a fact that you are a voracious, insane reader, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read?
DC: Lies Will Take You Somewhere, by my wife, Sheila Schwartz—and not just because we were married, either. I learned nearly everything I know about writing from her, and it’s a flat-out brilliant book: dark, funny, and strange in all the right ways.